Imhoff: a life of grain and pixels

Robert Imhoff_Wittner shoes_editorialA forthcoming exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat highlights the work of Robert Imhoff – an Australian photographer & filmmaker who not only built up a very successful career as a commercial photographer but also established a reputation as one of Australia’s leading portrait photographers.

Imhoff’s love affair with photography began in the same way as it did for many young photographers: with a Kodak Box Brownie, while his professional career started after studying photography at RMIT in the late 1960s.

A career break came when he was invited to do a four-­page spread featuring Wittner Shoes for insertion in the March 1971 edition of Vogue Australia. The images featured shoes on model’s feet that were draped around a naked female body. Although the shot featuring Gaye Baker doesn’t show much flesh by today’s standards, the use of the naked female form was seen as ground-­breaking for Vogue Australia.

As editor and photographer of a forthcoming book to coincide with the exhibition, Paul Burrows explains: “Imhoff demonstrated a creative brilliance right at the start of his career and he honed it with a meticulous pursuit of technical excellence….creating the fantastic, in-­camera, using his knowledge of lighting, optics and photochemical processes to take his images into a whole new world of visual magic.”

In her introductory essay to the same book, Professor Helen Ennis points to the importance of versatility as the key to a successful photographic career, and finds it a marker of Imhoff’s work over a thirty-­year period: “His photographic output across three decades encompasses portraits and advertising imagery executed in black and white, and colour, and ranging from purely straight shots to those that are clearly manipulated.”

Ennis considers that his portraiture is ‘distinguished by a high degree of deliberation’, but with consistent use of pared-­back settings, without props or accessories, the attention being directed to the subjects’ faces, stance or hands, although lighting is consistently used to build a sense of drama.

This retrospective exhibition, Imhoff: A life of grains and pixels documents his career as a professional photographer and filmmaker, including portraits of celebrities and the not so well known, photography for specialist food magazines that began to emerge in the 1970s, and assignments for a number of multinational companies. Imhoff tended to work for the upper end of the consumer market, undertaking commissions for perfume, cars, fashion and airlines.

Modern advertising photography is a complex creative process, and photographers build teams to assist in achieving the finely crafted images. Imhoff’s team included architectural model-­maker Herman Witte. In a commission for Kodak Australasia he enlisted the skills of puppeteer and model maker Ron Mueck, an artist now best known for his highly realistic fine art sculptures.

Images in the exhibition include shots used for advertisements for Mercedes Benz and Taylors Wines, and portraits of well-­known Australians including former Prime Minister John Howard and AFL football identity Ron Barassi.

“Now that we’re in the Photoshop age, it’s easy to underestimate just what went into an elegantly composed Imhoff photograph,” says Burrows.

“In some instances it was a grand collaboration with a set designer of model builder, in others it was the painstaking compositing of an image’s components on large format film, built with multiple exposures. Here, then, is photography practised not just as an art, but as a craft”.

Imhoff: a life of grain & pixels
Art Gallery of Ballarat, 40 Lydiard Street North, Ballarat
Exhibition: 11 October – 7 December 2014
Free entry

For more information, visit: www.artgalleryofballarat.com.au for details.

Image: Robert Imhoff, Wittner Shoes publicity shot 1970 – courtesy of the artist

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